Amid a maze of pulsing lights, grayscale buildings are wedged together against the blackness of night. In this disconsolate city watched over by a probing moon, Farid Tawil, a regular employee, steps off one of Beirut’s derelict buses and wanders his way back home only to find his house and whole building have disappeared while his surroundings suddenly morph into something unrecognizably alien. A fantastical vision of Beirut unfolds as the night progresses.
This is how Madina Moujawira lil Ard (City Neighboring the Earth)– Jorj Mhaya’s first full-length graphic novel–begins. Published originally in Arabic by Beirut based Dar Onboz, it was the winner of the best Arabic comic book award at the International Festival of Comics in Algeria in 2012 and was translated into French by publishing house Denoel to brilliant reviews last year. (An English version is currently being planned.)
Beirut is captured in it strikingly, drawn as a surreal metropolis that treads a thin line between reality and fantasy. As Farid loses his way home, he becomes a stranger caught in between what was once familiar to him and estrangement in a mutated unrecognizable city as night falls.
Meandering to find his way home, he encounters strange creatures, such as a revolutionary propagandist and an obese superman haunting its empty streets. Regrets, hopes and past failures unravel as the night unfolds.
The dream-like mood is brought to life through the method of composition: superposing diluted layers of one color, (black China ink) to create every tone from black to white; a time consuming technique requiring adept artistry quite uncommon to find.
Mhaya seems to have captured a Beirut pulse that resonates with the sentiments and dilemmas of belonging and alienation felt by a generation of Lebanese, whether living in the country or within its diaspora. It is what confessionalism, conflict and the promises of its post war era have left behind: layers of unresolved history at odds with a metropolitan sprawl eager to erase it and a hero trying to redefine his sense of home.
Lost, elusive and inaccessible Beirut tries to rejoin the earth, reflected in the elegiac poetic title he has chosen: “City neighboring the earth.”
“The city of Beirut consumes its inhabitants” Mhaya says. “It’s a labyrinth when it comes to living and working in it. For a lot of friends and people I know from my generation, leaving the city was impossible even if one gets the proper papers– there is something about this.”
“In the story, it is obvious that Farid is having some kind of crisis. Suddenly he feels he doesn’t belong to this wilderness and wants a way out. But on the other hand, what else is there? It is his dilemma with the city and its contradictions with identity and his past choices”
Nadine Touma of Dar Onboz explains that finding the right technique which could best convey and bring to life what Mhaya envisioned was a long gradual artistic journey she likened to the arduous process of developing photographs in a darkroom.
The novel’s style Touma says, is more than what could be suggestive of Franz Kafka’s, the fiction writer best known for an absurdist- surreal style. Indeed Madina Moujawira lil Ard seems to blend elements of poetic allegory and magical/hyper realism in the scenes, the marked history Mhaya imbues the surroundings with, the questionings of his hero and lastly in the reflection on the nature of war and man.
Mhaya grew up during Lebanon’s civil war and seems to have been particularly inspired by black and white newspaper photos of the 1970s and 1980s. “At first I did different techniques before I settled on ink wash,” Mhaya explains. “I wanted to find the right mood for the story, I was always impressed by the Lebanese black and white civil war photographs. I wanted to capture the same nature of these photographs, and for me the distorted buildings were always like living entities that preserved all the history surrounding them.”
“As the backgrounds are the main environment of the protagonist, Farid Tawil, he is stuck there forever.” Even though the drawings look very realistic, Mhaya does not base his drawings on photos, but rather on imagination.
The book released in its first part garnered a cult following among graphic art insiders in Lebanon and abroad. The sequel is due to be out this year. A film documenting the month’s long development of its center spread illustration and an exhibit of the original artwork is also planned.
A fully formed painter in his earlier years with local and international exhibits to his credit, Mhaya previously worked as an illustrator with advertising agencies and newspapers. Struggling to find enough spare time to complete the novel while trying to make a living, he was about to abandon the project when he met Touma who offered to publish it by the drawing standards he was seeking. The first part took four years to finish.
Mhaya divides his time between Beirut and Angoulême, the “city of comics” in France. Asked what he is currently working on: “I have a lot of projects all about the same city, but would need two lifetimes to finish all. I am still trying to find a new balance to work on the things I love doing and the things I have to do for a living.”
Dima Karam is a freelance writer published in The Daily Star, Al Akhbar and The Guardian. You can read here latest piece here.